‘Beyond Shang-Chi’: Panel discussion on superheroes, masculinity, and Asian American representation

Society & Culture

“At whatever point people want to contribute to the conversation and to the elevation, I think there are many moving parts. And that's I think, again, that's exciting. Because if you don't want to be in front of a camera and you don't want to work for a studio, there's a lot of other things that people can do to move that needle. I call upon everybody to do that. We do need all hands on deck in my opinion,” says Minji Chang, actor, producer, and entrepreneur.

serica initiative event on shang chi and asian american representation

Marvel’s Shang-Chi and Eternals raised the game for films centered on Asian American characters, and superheroes to boot. In what ways have these visual blockbusters expanded Asian and AAPI representation in America’s mainstream media?

The following text contains highlights from a Serica and 1990 Institute panel discussion with film industry and culture experts Bing Chen, President of Gold House; Kaiser Kuo, Founder of the Sinica Podcast; and Minji Chang, actor, producer, and entrepreneur. The panelists had a discussion to demystify changing notions of gender, China’s cultural soft power, the K-Wave phenomenon, and how to contribute to and sustain AAPI representation in entertainment. You can watch the full discussion here. (Interview has been edited for clarity and length).

Serica: As Asian Americans growing up in this country, we’ve all had lived experience filtered through ways Asian people are depicted in movies and books, which may be quite different from how younger generations view themselves today. Are there some experiences that have stuck with you in terms of what Asian American representation has meant to you throughout your life, as well as how it might feel differently for Gen Z growing up today.

Kaiser Kuo: I grew up in a time where Asian representation was negligible. Fortunately, my children are growing up in a very different era. I have a 17-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. They grew up in Beijing. They spent the first 10 and 12 years, respectively, of their lives in China. And on coming here, it’s been really interesting to see how they’ve reacted so differently, and I think that’s really telling. My daughter was completely immune to the blandishments of American popular culture and has instead been just very fixated on the East Asian culture that she loves, Japanese anime and manga, Korean pop music, of course. K-pop is huge in her life. Her room is damned a shrine to BTS and other acts, and even Chinese popular television. My son has not been a consumer of Asian popular culture at all, but he has been a huge beneficiary of its popularity in America. Because I mean, as a 15 year old boy, I grew up in an age of total sexual invisibility of Asian men. And he’s just got all the ladies, they’re kind of nuts about him. It’s kind of fun. So, I envy them. I think it’s quite telling about how things have really changed.

Minji Chang: Well, I grew up in California, in the Bay Area, my entire life and I was born in the ’80s and ’90s, and an avid consumer of pop culture, I think, from a really young age. I was watching TV, film. I was obsessed with MTV early on, listening to radio. So, I was really influenced by everything that was going on in the predominantly mainstream culture, which included hip-hop and R&B. So, a lot of black culture that I grew up with. I was not aware of my invisibility, but whenever I did see it peek out like All-American girl with Margaret Cho, that was a huge celebration point for me. I wept when I watched Joy Luck Club as a young girl, just because those moments are so striking and so rare.

But I also did grow up with ’90s K-pop. So, there is some part of me that resonates with H.O.T. and Turbo to any old school K-pop fans. There was that wave that started back then, and I held that as a point of pride for me. I kind of carried that with me into the AZN pride days that I got to live through in middle school up to this moment, and I’m actually really curious about what led up to that but there was kind of this duality. I felt like that was something that was relegated to kind of church and home and kind of my Asian friends, but not really. There’s a different part of me that existed in the mainstream in school and in different social circles. So, it was this really peculiar dichotomy which, at this point, I’m very grateful for, but certainly very different then. Now, I think it’s a lot more integrated and kids nowadays are seeing more representation and not feeling othered of themselves. I kind of split into two different worlds.

Bing Chen: This will probably be an unpopular answer, but I was the third culture kid across Asia and North America, and who was always just inspired by real life superheroes who rebalanced equity and opportunity. So, my heroes were Gandhi, Mother Teresa, MLK Jr, and Walt Disney, three of which as far as I’m concerned are Asian. So, I never felt like I wasn’t seen, if anything, we were crushing it. Walt Disney in my mind was Mickey Mouse, and Mickey Mouse of course has black hair. So, I assumed he was and therefore Walt Disney were indeed Asian. So, again, I realized it’s unpopular. It might come from a privileged perspective, but if I looked at the real world history set of heroes, they’re Asian, and I felt that was really affirming.

Serica: Male masculinity is changing certainly from the days of when we were growing up and the world is becoming a lot more gender fluid, as a kind of turning away from this idea of toxic masculinity. Thinking about traditional roles for Asian American men, what does Shang-Chi get right about masculinity and where are some areas where we still have some room to go?

Bing: I’ll start with the punchline. I think progress always only invites questions. So, I think the two punchlines from these questions are, one, we have to celebrate the right things publicly and critique the wrong things privately. Put another way, we have to find what resonates and perpetuate those more broadly, and then use what’s missing as improvements. The second piece is that more is more. We are kidding ourselves if we think any single piece of art is going to hit every single narrative. Gold House actually worked on the development and production of Shang-Chi. And I can tell you across, establishing a superhero, blending authentic superpowers with modern powers, getting the narrative right, thinking about geopolitical issues, etc. The list goes on and on of things that have to be balanced.

And in the same way that Crazy Rich Asians absolutely does not reflect the entire Asian diaspora because we are the most diverse race in the world. So, too, Shang-Chi can’t either. That should actually be a rallying call to say that more creative more for all of us. Sure, Simu is physically strong and a really great affirming character and person who’s been really outspoken. So, I think that’s something that the film and just honestly in real life he gets right, for sure. Was I perturb that it’s the only effectively MCU superhero that doesn’t get the girl? Yes, that was annoying. There’s no question. But then, when I get annoyed by that, I then have to question my own sort of masculinity and say, “Does the girl even want him? Does Awkwafina even like him?”

Why is that not enough, right? Why is it her place to serve him? And I think that’s problematic. Not to be too woke, but what even is masculinity anymore? And more importantly, why does it even matter? In a world where strength is starting to be defined in different ways, exhibit A, money. And then, I think the final thing is once again, and this is just one-on-one minority challenge and I’m not knocking our community, but we are kidding ourselves if we expect anything to solve everything.

That is not the way the world works. We just have to be real with ourselves that as minorities, we have to do twice as much to get half this far. And the only way around us is to, again, be very honest privately, celebrate the right things publicly, and start investing each other more and more because more creative is going to enable more stories and more visibility.

Serica: We’ve been talking about masculinity, but thinking about the strong female characters that are portrayed in Shang-Chi as well as in the Eternals. We’ve got Awkwafina as Katy, Shawn’s best friend, and Meng’er Zhang as Xialing, his sister. In the Eternals, we have Chloe Zhao and Gemma Chan. In what ways have these characters or others subverted Western stereotypes of Asian and Asian American women? Do you feel these depictions are actually serving to provide a better narrative going forward of what an Asian American woman is or has it also reinforced the stereotype as well?

Minji: I’ve been cast in things where I’ve been relegated to being a prop, basically. Having no words. Having no agency. Having no background story art development. The fact that these women are at the forefront, that they are integral parts of the story and the narrative, that they contribute to the movement of the story is incredible. And I think having personalities that are subverting the previously very problematic stereotype of being docile, or the dragon lady, or the Geisha is so important. We’ve definitely made leaps and bounds outside of that, which is incredible. And knowing Nora personally, she’s an incredible person that started as a YouTuber and as a rap artist.

So, she’s done so much to kind of just be personally expressive of her own personality, where she comes from, in Queens, and just lending that to everywhere that she goes. I think, we have done a lot of work but, obviously, there’s a lot of room for growth, right? There still are few leading parts, I’d say. Who is in the writer’s room? I’ll say that both as a spectator and as an artist matters a lot. I’ve read script upon script about characters that make no sense to me, that come off as a caricature of what somebody thinks that an Asian person or a woman reacts to or thinks or how they exist in the world. And I think that there’s a lot of value in that story coming from the source.

It matters that it comes from somebody who’s lived having a period, having microaggressions, being scared of sexual assault at every corner, and not going to places when it’s dark. That experience comes from something that’s lived in. The truth comes from that. So, we do have a long way to go and suffice it to say, I’m not poo-pooing on anybody, but there’s so many more rules and so many other ethnicities and narratives that have not been told yet in any sort of major way. We’ve had a lot of East Asian depictions, which is incredible, and I’m very fortunate to benefit from that. But I’m also aware of our Southeast Asian sisters and our South Asian sisters, and so many other people that fall under this umbrella of Asian American that have not been given the spotlight and we’re working on that.

I also want to say, as an actor, I’ve had personal gripe. And I’ve talked with other East Asian actresses at least about makeup and how those reinforce things like makeup, wardrobe, the music, the hairstyle, that can reinforce the perpetual foreigner effect in a very subtle way, which can be hard to detect, and you just kind of don’t know why. Why doesn’t this person feel like somebody I know on the street versus somebody that’s coming to me from a far-off land? And that can reinforce that perpetual foreign effect. There’s a lot of nuances to it, too. These are personal things I’ve experienced and that I’ve observed and talked with amongst all these other creators, and were working really hard to grow out of, which I’m excited about.

Serica: Shang-Chi focuses a little bit more on the cultural context whereas the Eternals is a little bit more agnostic to ethnicity when you kind of think about sort of the plot lines, and the arcs, and the character development. How do you think agents have been viewed by Hollywood in recent years? And from your perspective, both as someone who’s working within Gold House, as well as kind of your own personal lived experience as well, how should Asians be represented on screen to really earn a seat at that table going forward?

Bing: I think that there’s no real consistency on how we’re being perceived in the media, which is an opportunity because we get to sort of define those things. But also, the challenge because to Minji’s point, the sort of whether it’s perpetual foreigner or model minority myths and so forth, a lot of these pernicious stereotypes continue. So, we have to dismantle those by redefining them. We have to be affirmed because of, but also in spite of, different versions of ourselves. Whether different elements of ourselves, whether it’s our ethnicities or race at writ large, our genders, orientations, our socioeconomic incomes, our faith, and so forth. And again, at once, sometimes we need to lean into those and we do and other times, we don’t. And neither is right, neither is wrong by the way.

Again, more is more, I think, at the end of the day. I will say when we are able to bridge the two. I think that’s when I’m personally just a fan, that has found the most liberating creativity. One example of this is Parasite. Parasite was, without a question, a globally resonant criticism of socioeconomic disparity, but was uniquely, of course, Korean. There was about to be another film next year that we are just speaking about, everything, everywhere, all at once, that I think similarly leans into both. The strength of one’s ethnicity and how that can impact one’s relationships, whether it’s your spouse or your daughter, in that case, or yourself. But then, also, it is strong and interesting in spite of this race because it deals with a multiverse that, in theory, is globally and universally recognized. So I think, again, it’s this annoying dance back and forth, but I think that’s just what it is to be Asian American is what it is to be a minority.

Serica: China, under Xi Jinping, is really having a crackdown on “sissy men.” This reeducation of masculinity and resurgence of what it means to be a man in China. I’m curious to hear you speak a little bit about that, this idea that China’s is in some ways widening this gender gap where in a lot of places in the rest of the world, it’s actually becoming narrower. So, what does that mean for the kind of definition or standard for what it needs to be a man or woman in China?

Kaiser: I think when we think about where China is in the world, it’s not just a geographic distance, often, it’s a temporal distance. I think, that we need to understand that when President Obama came into office in 2008, he was adamantly opposed to gay marriage, right? There is a process that people go through. I mean, and to expect that once we are fully woke here in this country, that we are completely accepting, then suddenly that heteronormativity is going to vanish immediately from all other geographies on the planet. That is never going to happen. We want it to move in that direction. I certainly want it to move. It really bothers me to see what’s happening in China right now, that level of social conservatism. I don’t see in any way in which it’s actually productive. And it certainly tarnishes China’s global image, or at least its image in the developing world. But I think that what’s happening right now in China, I think, is that there is this belief, there’s this idea that kind of, quote-unquote, decadence is symptomatic of societies in decline.

They really believe just from their understanding of history, looking at empire in decline, they believe that tolerance of homosexuality, of transvestism, of things like that, are markers of civilizational decline. Somehow, they’ve gotten it into their heads that that’s the case. I find it horrifying, personally, but I also try to be able to step back and look at it a little more sort of historically and understand. I think he’s out of touch really with where Chinese society is going. I mean, I remember a time where homosexuality was considered simply not just a mental disease, but it was actually criminal. We’re beyond that now. We have moved. And I don’t think that it will be many decades, if even a decade, before we see things like legalization of gay marriage, obviously already making huge progress into other parts of the world, like Taiwan, especially.

Serica: There’s been so much of Korean culture, the K-wave, K-pop, that has become widely accepted in the U.S. But there are also lots of other East Asian content that doesn’t quite get as much acceptance or screen time. What are some of the cultural touch points that really brought on the K-wave phenomenon in the U.S. And why do you think Korea has been able to penetrate the Western market in a way that others perhaps have been less successful?

Minji: From what I can say from an anecdotal perspective and being a consumer myself, and just watching it and participating with K-pop concerts coming over to LA, to San Francisco, and hitting me up and asking me to have collaboration to promote these concerts and things like that, I think it’s been a very long time in the making, if you will. Like I was referring to earlier, I was a K-pop fan in the ’90s. There was a huge wave that started actually in the late ’80s with H.O.T. and very specific groups that I don’t think intended to make a hit in the states or in Europe or the places that it did.

But when it did, I think they saw an opportunity. And because it was coupled with the fact that Korea, I believe, as a government, decided that they wanted to export culture, that they wanted to put in resources and time and effort and energy into creating. People can have their critiques on it, whether it was turning their specific culture or commodifying culture and crafting something that would be palatable to the rest of the world. Either way, whether it was luck and a mix of concerted effort, I think they succeeded. Those things took time for that to just aid and to become the big wave that it is now. But K dramas, I mean, I grew up watching them. I actually rented Korean dramas from the Chinese market down the street from where I lived in Cupertino.

I lived in Cupertino, so I was surrounded by Chinese American kids. But it was such a phenomenon for me to share that with my Chinese best friend, that we are both K-pop enthusiasts at 10 years old in Silicon Valley, in 1995 and onward. It’s crazy to see how that’s grown. But like I said earlier, there’s been a lot of investment, I think, what Korea has done, and a lot of study and practice. I mean, the stereotype of Asian Americans really demanding excellence and really putting their 110% into perfecting something, I think is reflecting in that. There’re criticisms on that, including from me. Is that really art if you’re just trying to formularize something, and just saying, “Okay, we can create a group and put them through a bootcamp and make sure that there’s 15.” But out of that, there has been so much innovation.

They do create a lot of music that’s so fun to dance to and becomes a soundtrack of our lives and touches upon us. They’ve created this universe, this universe that I think has been so seductive in a way and it’s so engaging. There’s a lot of intention and work that went into making that. And then, there’s a lot of response that came from the audiences and the fandom, and it kind of has just grown over the years. So, I’m not as big of a BTS fan. I like some of their songs. But it’s just been really exciting to see because while we can have criticisms, it has been a sort of gateway for a lot of people to entertain narratives, and perspectives, and cultures, that they were not interested or curious about in the least before. Even if it’s just from the sheer, “What is this phenomenon?” Not even being a fan of it, but just being kind of in awe of how did this happen? It’s inviting a lot more conversation and discovery.

Serica: Given the sorts of proposals and individuals who are coming to you for ideas, how is Gold House thinking about whom to collaborate with? Has this been a trend that you’ve seen as well, kind of predominantly a lot more kind of Korean-dominated filmmakers or producers who are coming in, who are sort of getting a little bit more airtime? Or has it been pretty mixed, kind like a larger variety?

Bing: If we silo by ethnicity, it’s been pretty mixed and balanced. I’d say there’s still a dearth of Southeast Asian stories that have come to the fora, that we’re excited to hopefully finance and get out there. And that’s for a variety of reasons but no, I think otherwise it’s fairly balanced. I’d also say, I think most importantly for all of us is also balanced on size. There’s this very annoying debate in the community, “Do big budget films matter more, or do indie films matter more?” And, of course, all things both matter. Big budgets have just scale and literally marketing machines of 200 million, that’s why they look big. But sometimes, they can lack the authentic invention and sincerity that indies can actually thrive in, and plus the prestige. Both of those I think are really important, as well. And the good news is we are seeing a good balance of both of those.

Serica: Korean dramas and, of course, K-pop has really dominated the headlines this year. But, of course, China is quietly emerging as a global TV powerhouse, as we’ve seen in a variety of different forums this year. And I think a trend that will continue with Netflix, obviously picking up a lot more Chinese shows. I was curious from your perspective, Kaiser, will the next Squid Game be made in China? China is notoriously bad at promoting its own soft power. Is that changing from the way you see things based on the media that’s being put out right now?

Kaiser: Unfortunately, no. I think it’s actually going in the wrong direction. China does not punch even close to its weight globally right now. I think the problem is… Well, I mean, like Fight Club. The first rule of soft power is don’t talk about soft power. China talks constantly and incessantly about soft power, which is probably what’s getting in its way. I think, the main problem, of course, is that cultural powers are produced at the periphery and it comes from the grassroots. It’s not ever a top-down kind of directed thing. I think this is a very fundamental misconception and it’s going to cripple, I think, China in its efforts to project as it has. If we look back at those times where Chinese cultural products have had significant impact outside, it’s been in periods of political loosening. It’s been in periods of more specifically cultural tolerance and more sort of openness.

Now, I think, it’s deeply problematic. But even more so, there is an aesthetic diversion that’s happening. If you look at the films that really make it in China… American audiences, global audiences, well, not global audiences. There will be other audiences in other parts of the developing world in Southeast Asia, where there will be a connection, but not to the developed world, the audiences, the aesthetic preferences have diverged wildly. And I chalk this up to a bunch of different things but one problem, I mean, even things like crackdowns on intellectual property violations. I believe very strongly in something that I call seed piracy. I mean, if it weren’t for the mad proliferation of VCDS and then DVDs in China in the 1990s, there wouldn’t even have been that kind of an appetite for American television products. I think it’s really unfortunate. I think, in something I’ve been involved in rock music, that was certainly the case. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we get too uptight about that money we might be losing from disc piracy in China. It’s been a number of factors, but it doesn’t look good.

Serica: How do we put more Asian actors and actresses into lead roles? Do we need more institutions like Gold House or Asian American-owned and led studios in order to promote our own narratives?

Bing: First and foremost, we need to invest in producers. And then, second, of tantamount importance is that multi-hyphenate writer-director, also known as a filmmaker. Producers just don’t get public credit but they’re candidly doing so much of the work, end-to-end. They’re the ones who develop the scripts. They are the ones who find financing. They’re the ones who distribute and they’re just not given the celebrity that candidly directors are for unbeknownst reasons to me. There is an enormous dearth of Asian producers in Hollywood, across TV and film.

The good news is we do have a lot of great ones. But we just need to invest in more. It’s also hilariously a somewhat pragmatic career path. It’s not as volatile as being a traditional creative because the producer is so close to business. So, for very scared conservative parents, know that there will be a meal ticket that’s somewhat controllable on that end. The second piece is there’s so many great programs to invest in writers, directors, and so forth. So Gold House just partnered up with Netflix and Tribeca. It’s called the Future Gold Film Fellowship. We’re going to make the careers of the next Chloe Zhao’s writer-directors as hybridization. And I think that hybridization is really important because you can’t just write something and expect someone to make it.

We have to own our own independent studios too, there’s no question. From development, production, all the way to distribution beyond theatrical. I’m particularly inspired by the volume of Asians who have pioneered various distribution platforms, whether it’s YouTube, or Twitch, or Pinterest, or Snap, all Asian founded. Or Twitter, now, Asian chiefed, etc. And we need to lean into that strength. The other side, though, of course, is we also need to be complicit in the improvement within the established system. Gold House does now work with every major Hollywood student streamer. I can tell you definitively, they give a real damn about getting authenticity right.

Serica: This increased attention on Asian American AAPI representation is really wonderful, but is it sustainable? Is it a flash in the pan? How do we keep up this trend of long-term viability and visibility?

Minji: Coming from the performer side, my work with Kollaboration has been working with independent artists. Kollaboration, we hosted showcases since 2000 pre-social media, pre-internet, quite frankly. Randall Park rapped on our stages. Ali Wong hosted our shows. Steven Yeun was on-stage with a guitar before he became Glen. Every artist has a beginning too, and there needs to be a lot of support for the people to play the rules that are being written, produced, and all this effort to fund them. I’ll say that from an actor standpoint, I started in musical theater when I was five-years-old, but my path was more convoluted.

I was shifted towards the medical career because my parents thought that’s the way that I could succeed in life. And I had this dream of wanting to be an actor and a filmmaker. I wanted to work on these films, but I just didn’t see any examples ahead of me. So, that being said, if you don’t see people again, it’s a chicken or egg thing. People can be the trailblazer, but it takes a lot of resources. And it takes a lot of study for artists to be at the level to perform and compete in an arena. I’m not saying art is a competition, but if we’re trying to make the best of the best, we can’t remove that element from it. I care about creating quality films. And for me as a filmmaker, a fledgling filmmaker, I want to have good actors play the rules that I want to create.

So, I can say that as an actor and as an artist. You’re hustling so hard and you’re having to do a lot of different things. Doing your pay to play, casting websites, that costs money every single month. Getting proper headshots, upwards of $1000 now in Los Angeles, which I think is exploitative and ridiculous. But you’re trying to take acting classes. We’re trying to play in the Olympics, and there are people that have never even gotten in the pool yet to do a lap. So, there needs to be that training. My father raised me to be a believer in the 10,000 hours. Don’t expect excellence on something that you tried once. Maybe you are the prodigy and you can just become the best Oscar winning actor from your first film.

But a lot of people, in general, can’t. It’s a skill. It’s an art. It’s a craft. And it’s something that needs to be honed. So, I think other investments can go into the artists themselves to do that. Having proper publicists, having proper managers who can navigate the deals and the negotiations and the promotion of the films that are once they’re done having proper critics, journalists, podcasters, who can elevate these stories and give spotlight to something that other people don’t deem to be worth air time, that matters. It matters so much. And I’ve been able to hear all these stories and experiences from people that are in the films, making the films and promoting the films.

That’s why I’ve been so fortunate to be in this community and to learn at every angle, what it takes to take even a stellar film, but to rise above the din of all the noise in Hollywood, to make a splash, to have relevance, to be in front of our eyeballs, because there’s so much competing for our attention from a lot of different industries. Not just from film, from tech, from politics, everything, from our own families. At whatever point people want to contribute to the conversation and to the elevation, I think there are many moving parts. And that’s I think, again, that’s exciting. Because if you don’t want to be in front of a camera and you don’t want to work for a studio, there’s a lot of other things that people can do to move that needle. I call upon everybody to do that. We do need all hands on deck in my opinion.


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